Today in History: August 23 – The Walk-in-the-Water Begins its Maiden Voyage
The Walk-in-the-Water was the first passenger steamboat to operate on Lake Erie. On August 23, 1818 the Walk-in-the-Water launched from Black Rock on its maiden voyage.1
Supposedly named after a Wyandot chief, the Walk-in-the-Water was rigged as a two-masted schooner “135 feet long, 32 feet wide, and with a depth of of just under 9 feet [and] [r]ated at 338 gross tons.”2 The Walk-in-the-Water had a fare of $18,3 the steamboat ran from Buffalo to Detroit, making stops at Erie, Grand River, Cleveland, and Sandusky.4 According to John Brandt Mansfield, “the name, ‘Walk-in-the-Water,’ being so long, was not generally used, either in conversation or in print. As she was the only one of her class on Lake Erie she was usually designated as ‘The Steamboat.'”5
Commanded by Captain Job Fish, the Walk-in-the-Water carried 29 passengers on her maiden voyage (but would accommodate up to one hundred passengers on later trips).6 History of the Great Lakes provides a contemporary description of the steamship’s first trip, as published in the Detroit Gazette:
“The Walk-in-the-Water left Buffalo at one and a half P.M., and arrived at Dunkirk 35 minutes past six on the same day. On the following morning she arrived at Erie, Captain Fish having reduced her steam in order not to pass that place, where he took in a supply of wood…
At half-past seven P.M. she left Erie, and arrived at Cleveland at eleven o’clock, Tuesday; at twenty minutes past six P.M. sailed, and reached Sandusky bay at one o’clock on Wednesday; lay at anchor during the night, and then proceeded to Venice for wood; left Venice at three P.M. and arrived at the mouth of the Detroit river, where she anchored during the night.
The whole time of this first voyage from Buffalo to Detroit occupied 44 hours and ten minutes [running time].”7
On November 1, 1821, the Walk-in-the-Water was wrecked when it ran aground during a gale. History of the Great Lakes provides an account of the wreck from one of the eighteen passengers aboard the Walk-in-the-Water at the time:
“On Wednesday, October 31, the Walk-in-the-Water left Black Rock at 4 P.M., on her regular trip to Detroit. The weather, though somewhat rainy, did not appear threatening. After proceeding a short distance up the lake, she was struck by a severe squall, which continued to blow through the night with extreme severity. The lake became rough to a terrifying degree, and every wave seemed to threaten destruction to the boat and passengers. To proceed up the lake was impossible. To attempt to return to Black Rock amid the darkness and howling tempest would be certain destruction. She was then anchored, and for a time held fast. The casing in her cabin moved at every roll, and the creaking of her joints and timbers was appalling. She commenced leaking, and her engine was devoted to the pumps, but the water increased to an alarming extent, and the wind increased to an alarming degree. The wind blew more violent as the night advanced, and it was discovered that she was dragging her anchors…The boat was now at the mercy of the waves until 5 o’clock in the morning, when she was beached a short distance above the lighthouse, and we all debarked. Some idea may be formed of the fury of the storm from that fact that, though heavily laden, the boat was thrown entirely on the beach.”8
No lives were lost when the Walk-in-the-Water became stranded, but the hull of the ship was damaged beyond repair.9
Within only a few years, the Walk-in-the-Water had become a valuable tool for transportation, commerce, and communication along Lake Erie, and it was a financial success for her owners. Plans for a new steamship commenced almost immediately.
The following winter, master carpenter Noah Brown built the Superior on the shores of Buffalo creek.10 It was the first vessel built in Buffalo.11 Prior to 1822, large sandbars at the mouth of Buffalo creek prevented the development of a suitable harbor at Buffalo; for this reason the Walk-in-the-Water was launched from Black Rock. The Superior was shorter than the Walk-in-the-Water in both length and width, but was two feet deeper, requiring deeper water at the launch site.12
Buffalo citizens wanted their town to play a bigger part in Great Lakes commerce. They convinced the Lake Erie Steamboat Company to build the Superior at Buffalo creek, promising that the mouth of the creek would be cleared and the water would be deepened. An agreement was made guaranteeing the Lake Erie Steamboat Company $100 for each day the Superior, when ready to go out, was delayed at Buffalo creek.13
As the Superior neared completion, the Buffalo creek project was still unfinished, and the people of Buffalo grew anxious. They “felt that success in getting this vessel out of the harbor into the lake was vital to the future of that harbor.”14 Thus in early spring 1822, “the citizens assembled every day in large numbers, merchants, lawyers and laborers alike, with teams, scrapers and shovels, and other necessary tools, and labored assiduously to remove as much of the bar as was necessary to permit the Superior to pass out and return to the harbor, and those who could not work sent down provisions of all kinds…in order to help the good work along.”15
Thanks to the hard work of Buffalo citizens, the creek was cleared in time, and the Superior was successfully launched from Buffalo on April 13, 1822.16
- John Brandt Mansfield, History of the Great Lakes, vol. I (Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1899), 593.
- Mark L. Thompson, Queen of the Lakes (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1994), intro.
- Mansfield, History of the Great Lakes, vol. I, 593.
- Thompson, Queen of the Lakes, intro.
- Mansfield, History of the Great Lakes, vol. I, 594.
- Ibid., 599-600.
- Ibid., 603.
Fig 1: The Walk-in-the-Water, illustration by Samuel Ward Stanton, American Steam Vessels (New York: Smith & Stanton, 1895), 24.
Fig. 2: Wrecking of the Walk-in-the-Water, November 1, 1821. Painting by C.M. Burton. From John Brandt Mansfield, History of the Great Lakes, vol. I (Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1899), 602.
Mansfield, John Brandt. History of the Great Lakes, vol. I. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1899.
Thompson, Mark L. Queen of the Lakes. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.